GW: I’m here today with Dr. John Lennox, who is one of the founders of the International Swordsmanship and Martial Arts Convention in Lansing, which moved to Vegas to become CombatCon. He’s an instructor with the Historical Martial Studies Society and with the School of Two Swords, and he has a Ph.D. in the relationship between stage combat and personal combat from the late 16th century onwards. So without further ado, John, welcome to the show.
JL: Thank you very much. Good to see you, Guy.
GW: It’s great to see you again. So what about in the world are you?
JL: I am in Michigan, still. When last you came over to the workshop, the ISMAC workshop, still in the same place.
GW: Okay. So we first met at ISMAC, the International Swordsmanship and Martial Arts Convention in 2001, which is over 20 years ago, sir.
GW: So how was it that in 2001 you were organising an international event which had an awful lot of historical martial arts in it? How did that occur?
JL: Well, actually that occurred because in ‘99 I went to the very first Western Martial Arts Workshop that Chicago Swordplay Guild in Chicago had put on. And it was there that I met Jared Kirby and I had such a great time there and was talking with him. He was having such a great time. And I said to him, I said, well, I teach at a college, I can get whatever rooms I want for free to do workshops, it wouldn’t cost us anything other than bring the people in. And we agreed that the way we want to do it is cover flights and hotels and anything else we could muster if we could. And so he was moving at that time from somewhere, wherever he lived, I want to say Minnesota, to New York to start studying with the Martinez’s. And so on the way across, he stopped at my house and we sat and discussed it and sorted it all out. And I showed him to the college and all the rooms and stuff. And at that point that’s where it was. And we ran it at that college for quite some time until they started becoming a bit too constraining. And we moved it to Detroit for about two years.
GW: I remember the Detroit ones as well. Yeah.
JL: Yep. And then after that, the numbers were not going any higher. And so we ended up closing it in 2010 or 11, I believe.
GW: I think it was earlier than that, more like 2008, 2009.
JL: No, it might have been ‘09, but shortly after that is when he came up with the idea of CombatCon. He and I chatted about it and I didn’t have any kind of financial backing at the time to jump into it on that level. So he and Tim took on that end of it and I just sort of helped out as much as I could, you know, from a logistics standpoint and giving my advice and whatnot.
GW: Was 2001 the first ISMAC. Was that the second?
JL: No, that was the second.
GW: That’s what I thought, because I started my school in 2001 and I thought, okay, one thing I need to do is kind of get onto the international map, get to meet people who are good at historical swordsmanship so I can learn from them, bring them to Finland, that sort of thing. And so I contacted Jared saying, I have started my school, I have decided to do this for a living. And you run this event, can I please come and teach a class? And Jared’s response was absolutely classic. He said, well, our budget for the event is entirely taken up. We can’t pay you anything, not even expenses. But if you can get here, we will give you a teaching slot. And if the event makes any money, we will see you right. So I thought, I need to do this. So I bought the flights and first I went to New York and I got to New York, did few days, and I flew over to Detroit, over to Lansing and had a fantastic weekend. End of the weekend, Jared came up to me and said, Guy, I’m very pleased to say that the event did actually make some money. Here’s $50. The entire operating profit of the event was $50. And he gave it all to me to help me with my flights.
JL: I think we might have had 30 students our first year. Something in that neighbourhood.
GW: But I mean the second year it was it was a pretty well-attended event. I mean, it had at least 20 instructors and at least 100 students.
JL: Yeah, yeah. It was good. It went very well. And I think we are down to about 75 students by the time we finally said, okay, we need to call it and it needs to end.
GW: Yeah, also that’s the same weekend that I met Sean Hayes for the first time. So it sparked off all sorts of useful connections. All right, now, trick question. This is the test your general knowledge history of the ISMAC event. What kind of party has a 50% mortality rate?
JL: That’d be a boarding party. Fantastic class.
GW: Tell us all about it.
JL: It’s about learning how to fight like pirates and naval officers and seamen did on ships in the golden age of sail. And what happens when they board each other and attack? So myself and Gareth Thomas and Steve Huff and later on, Stevie Fick really put our heart and soul into this kind of research and study and so on and so forth, and working with each other to actively work at it, physically do the actions and moves, see what would work. What wouldn’t work. Getting onto tall ships as often as we can to see literally about how much space do I have to do this kind of thing, what happens when I go below decks? So we took that kind of information and threw it into these classes. And at the end of it we have a big boarding action where we split the class in half and one half is one side, one half is the other and we let them go at it, obviously all kitted up and safe and whatnot, but we just let them go at it and we kind of found the first year like about half of them died. So we did the T-shirts of the only party with a 50% mortality rate. And the next year we ended up put crossing that 50 out and putting 90 because damn near everybody died.
GW: Did you ever get to do it actually on a ship? I seem to remember there were plans to do it on a ship.
JL: We did it on a riverboat. That was the best we had in Lansing. We were doing it on riverboats and we were going to do it on a riverboat. We would have got a tall ship if we could have, because they do come in every so often. When we moved to Detroit, we were going to do it. But the national defence, United States National Security Association closed it down because we would technically be in international waters with weapons.
JL: Because that riverboat’s on the Detroit River, which half of it is Canadian, half of it is American. And yeah.
GW: That would have been a bit awkward. You’d think they’d have a bit of a sense of humour about this.
JL: Right you’d think. And I think the Canadians would too, I mean what are they going to do? They’re going to look over and go, oh, sorry.
GW: Is the United States of America is declaring war by sending like 40 people waving blunt swords onto a boat? I think if U.S. wanted to annexe Canada, they wouldn’t do it with blunt cutlasses.
JL: I think we could do better than that, actually. So yeah, that’s how that went. And it’s wonderful. We ended up doing a bunch of workshops out at Stevie Fick’s, I think two or three years’ worth of workshops, annual workshops on that, at Stevie Fick’s DIMAS and had a wonderful time doing that. You know, then the pirate phase, the craze kind of went away.
GW: What sort of historical sources do we have for pirate combat? Pirates are not famous for writing books.
JL: They are not. They are not famous for writing books. What we have is we have occasional descriptions of battles that took place during boarding actions from captains or admirals. We have a handful of treatises that were basically the Admiralty having a treatise written about how to sword fight with a cutlass, most of which are trash.
GW: The objective is not to teach people how to be good at fighting with the cutlass. The objective is to give usually press ganged troops some idea of what to do with this short blade they’ve been issued.
JL: Exactly. Exactly. We just find that a lot of them were basically military sabre. They’ve just switched over to Cutlass, which does not. It’s too long, you know? And lots of the cuts, any one of the low cuts, low line cuts, you don’t do that running at someone on a ship. This doesn’t happen, you know. So one guy named William Pringle Green said, I can teach people in three days to defend a ship. And the cuts are this one, this one and this one. And that’s it. And here’s the defences. I’ll show you defence and flank cuts but probably not going to happen. And so that was the extent of it, it’s a much quicker, much cleaner system and it’s a whole lot of get it out of the way and kill it and move on to the next guy. So his was an actually solid treatise on how to actually do this.
GW: That’s interesting, because a lot of people who don’t do much in the way of their own historical research and maybe not that familiar with swordsmanship really works would sort of assume that the more complex a treatise is the better it is. But that is like just so completely not know how it works.
JL: No. Absolutely not.
GW: All right. So you developed your pirate combat stuff primarily from what Pringle Green was teaching. Was it the Royal Navy or the American Navy?
JL: He was in the Royal Navy. God, no, Americans wouldn’t have written that. But between that and us actively doing it as often as humanly possible when we were together and working it and working it and realising what worked and what didn’t work, you know, the whole section that I have, and this is a book that is going to come out actually sometime in the near future. We wrote a book on this.
GW: Okay. You and who?
JL: Myself and Gareth and Steve Huff.
JL: And I’ve got a lot of pictures to deal with to try to get that. But other than that, the book is pretty well all written and edited and like the section on smallsword, well Pringle Green doesn’t discuss that at all.
GW: Why would he?
JL: Right, exactly. But when we were doing our working at it, we know for a fact because there’s actual written accounts of officers with their smallsword being involved in the boarding actions and attacking and fighting off people. So we decided to start working with it to see what worked and what didn’t work. And after multiple times of me being attacked, there were about two or three guards that were the only ones that would actually work without me instantly getting them to control my weapon or completely disarmed. This is the only way it could happen, only way it can be done. And so that’s how we do it.
GW: So if you’re stuck in a boarding action and you only have a smallsword what should you do?
JL: From what I found, the best guard is a guard where you’re standing and the sword is pointing down toward the floor and the sword is held sort of between your legs. So what happens is they come rushing at you. You basically do a reverse lunge, bringing up the point.
GW: Oh, a bit like a Donald McBane Boar’s Thrust.
JL: That’s exactly it. Yep. And honestly, it’s so quick and it’s so hard to catch for a person running at you on time.
GW: So there you are with your smallsword stuck in some pirate’s bowels. What do you do when his mates start whacking at you?
JL: Oh, yeah. Now you’re screwed.
GW: So it works once.
JL: Frankly, what we what we decided and we learnt is, is because you try, you put the cutlass, being a slashing weapon, you try not to thrust too much with it for that exact reason. What you’re just talking about with a smallsword, you got no choice. So I’m going to run that through. I’m going to now go up to that guy, hold him in. He’s now a meat shield for me until I can remove that and then move on to someone else.
GW: Fair enough. All right, now, I know you have a lot of theatre and stage combat background. In fact, the last time we talked, you were directing a stage musical, Hair.
GW: 2019. Okay, so I know you have like a solid theatrical background and your PhD is all about the connection between stage combat and actual combat. Starting from like the early 17th century onwards, I think. So for the benefit of the listener who may, it’s vanishingly possible that one or two of the listeners might not have actually read your PhD. Shocking. Shocking. I know. But every now and then people come to this podcast somewhat unprepared. What is the relationship between fencing on stage and in real life?
JL: Well, the interesting thing that I found was that from Shakespeare’s day on. Now, mind you, that there’s not a whole lot of reference to it from the Greeks all the way up to Shakespeare, all the way up to the Renaissance, because it just didn’t happen.
GW: They didn’t write about it or there were no swords on stage?
JL: The Romans are about the only ones. The Greeks always did their violence off stage. That was a part of the art. It was more visceral to describe it as far as they’re concerned in their culture. So it was always offstage. Medieval, we didn’t really have a whole lot of it. It was mostly biblical stories and so on and so forth. So there wasn’t a whole lot of violence in their productions. But the Romans are the only ones and a lot of their violence was actual.
GW: So you have actual like slaves and gladiators and whatnot doing the fights. And actually killing each other if necessary.
JL: I mean, come on, it’s the best. It looks good.
GW: So for the stage realism, I mean, what you need to have is let’s say you’re putting on Romeo and Juliet and like, how did people get killed in that play? Like about five people. Six people? So you need six new actors every night.
JL: Every night. Sure.
GW: Okay. I’m sure people would volunteer for that.
JL: Yes. Well, the Romans, if they really wanted to do something to that effect, they would just put a slave in with the character mask at that point and let him die. Right. See the interesting thing is and you’re very well aware of this is the culture of duelling at this point in time, in Shakespeare’s time was so pervasive that it was not uncommon for an actor, many of whom actually were gentleman, had owned land or had a title because they were connected to a nobility or the royal family and they were capable of getting fencing instruction. I mean, frankly, not to mention you don’t have to be noble to get fencing instruction in this era, at least not in England.
GW: Hang on. So you’re saying that the actually some of the actors who trod the boards in Shakespeare’s time had like land and titles. Really?
JL: Shakespeare actually did have land himself.
GW: Okay. He owned land, so in that sense he was a gentleman. Okay. But acting in this period is associated with vagrancy, right?
JL: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, you were not allowed to list acting as your profession. So, for example, Ben Johnson, the playwright, had to be listed as Ben Johnson bricklayer because that was his father’s profession. So they couldn’t do that. But what they were capable of getting fencing tuition, and many of them did. We know for a fact that Ben Johnson killed another actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel.
GW: That’s right. Yeah. And he was branded on the thumb because he pleaded benefit of clergy.
GW: He was able to read and write. He didn’t get hanged. He just got burned on the thumb. That seems fair to me. When I eventually get done by Her Majesty’s Government for some wrongdoing, I’m going to say, look dudes, I can read. Right? So you can’t lock me up forever. All you can do is maybe give me a little tattoo on my hand and we’re done. I think that’s fair.
JL: I think it is. So the cool thing is, these people, as a matter of fact, one of Shakespeare’s actors in his company was a fencing master. He played his master prize.
GW: I did not know that. Do you remember his name?
JL: So off the top of my head, no.
GW: Look it up, email me, I’ll stick it in the show notes.
JL: Okay. So he very well could have trained other actors in the company.
JL: There were certainly rules, as you well know, from the English Masters of Defence of a school, that he couldn’t do a school within, you know, X amount of miles of another master, but I think they’re kind of loose on the rules of train your fellow actors in the show. So all they’ve did, from what I can see in there, all they did was they fenced. They just fenced out a measure, kept it safe. Did it right.
GW: I had this same discussion with Ben Crystal, the Shakespearean actor, when he was on the show a while ago. And, yeah, we sort of came to the conclusion that the way they probably staged their fights was they might have a specific couple of moves at the start and a specific finish to look good on stage and in between they just fenced out a measure.
JL: Exactly. Actually, there’s a lot of, if you know what you’re talking about, and this is simple for you, you obviously know exactly what you’re talking about with fencing and you’ve read a lot of Shakespeare. Shakespeare actually damn near choreographed several of his fights just by laying out what he could be done. Mercutio and Tybalt. Mercutio says, Come see your passado. He’s like, start the fight with the passado.
GW: You think that’s actually a specific instruction.
JL: And then Benvolio describes the whole fight to the prince after it’s over. And it better have looked like that or the audience is going to get pissed. Remember, audiences at this time were very particular about their entertainment.
GW: Yeah. And have a pretty good chance of actually knowing a bit of fencing themselves.
JL: Exactly. Exactly. I read several accounts of them jumping on stage and showing them when they did it wrong.
JL: Oh, yeah. 1700s, sometime in the 1700s, there was a sailor, drunken sailor who jumped on stage because the lead actor in that play was playing a sailor who was fighting off a bunch of guys. And so he jumped on to help his buddy out and beat the piss out of, like, five actors.
GW: Took it a bit too seriously.
JL: Yeah. Yeah. So this is this is not uncommon. So that’s the thing is we’re in a culture. And for hundreds of years we were in a culture where you learnt to fence to defend yourself. And you carried a sword about, many people did, that concept of only noblemen carried swords – no they didn’t. I’ve got woodcuts and pictures of all sorts of farmers and so on and so forth with a sidearm. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century when fencing became basically turned into sport fencing. Once that kind of shift happened, it wasn’t until then and the duel had pretty much seen its sunset, that actors all of a sudden didn’t have those skills anymore. And that’s when you start seeing these patterns of ‘click, click, click, click, click’ type swordplay start to arise. Because you’ve got actors who are travelling about, star actors especially, who are travelling from place to place. You get a couple of rehearsals before you go up. There’s no time to deal with that. You either are a fencer and you know what you’re doing and you’re good, or you rely on the fact that you and this other guy happen to know the same pattern. And you can do that pattern quickly. So that’s when that all changed. You know, then we had Hollywood, of course.
GW: Yeah. What made you want to do a Ph.D. in that particular subject?
JL: Well, the Ph.D. is in directing and scholarship in theatre. And I knew when I walked into the Ph.D. programme, that’s exactly what I wanted to do, because I’d been immersed in stage combat for so long. I think I went into my programme in 2002, so I’d already started down the road of historical fencing and I had the stage combat for a number of years prior to that as well. So I just kind of decided when I walked in there at the smart thing to do is to is to see if there’s a relationship here that’s gone.
GW: That’s a good idea. I remember one time I was in Lansing and I saw a group of your guys training a fight.
GW: I think it might have been Romeo Juliet. I was fucking terrified. I thought they were going to die. I knew it was a rehearsal, but I was like, fuck, they’re going to kill each other.
JL: Well, that was our point is, you know, it’s one of the reasons why Jared and I clicked so well is that both of us had the same mindset, is I want to see fights on stage that look like they should be, you know? Not big huge misses, not spins. I really hate it. Unless it’s a light sabre I really hate it when someone does a strike to the sword and then turns a full 360 to strike to the other flank.
GW: But how about when you’re cutting from the right and you want to cut from the left. You can’t just move your hands around and cut to the other side. That would never work. Clearly you have to do a full 360 with your body to strike to the other side, I mean, how else are you going to do it, John? Come on, be realistic. Don’t like spins. I mean, it’s not like your opponent is going to stab you in the back or anything, that would be ungentlemanly.
JL: Right. Exactly. Who would do that? The Germans would.
GW: There are plenty of Germans listening to this show.
JL: The Germans, their treatises are some of the meanest stuff. I love reading their treatises. But, boy, they’re just violent.
GW: Now, okay. So sounds like a bit of a trick question but you’re going to need to expound quite considerably on this. Okay?
GW: What is Rumi Maki?
JL: Rumi Maki is the Inca style of combat. And it’s an amalgam actually, the Incas being a conquering empire. Every time they conquered a village, you know, on their borders and so on and so forth, and brought them in. They didn’t just sort of bring them in and destroy them. They brought them in and they brought their entire culture with them. So any fighting culture that village had, they brought it in and then melded that into their own system as well. So it’s actually quite a huge amalgam of a variety of different styles of combat, all based in this South American region.
GW: Okay. So how do we know how, I mean, because the Incas didn’t write anything down.
JL: It’s still alive today. It’s still alive today. Yeah, absolutely. It is still being taught down in Peru. And there are some places now it’s started to spread across the world. There’s a place in Chicago, actually , that teaches Rumi Maki.
GW: Okay. All right. Well, the problem with any sort of living tradition is it’s bound to have changed over time. And the Incas were largely destroyed about 400 years ago.
JL: Right. And they acknowledge the changes that have occurred over this time frame. And one of the first major changes that occurred was changes to the system when the conquistadors came in because they had to deal with shit they’ve never dealt with before.
GW: I lived in Peru for about six years in the eighties. Absolutely no one anywhere was doing Rumi Maki.
JL: That’s crazy. Wow.
GW: Just didn’t exist. I mean, I was looking for martial arts there and there was karate, there was kickboxing. There was a bit of judo, there was a bit of Tai Chi. Fencing wasn’t really a thing. There was no historical fencing as it hadn’t really been kind of reinvented yet. But I never came across anything that was representing itself as an Incan martial art.
JL: There is a book on it, and it was written by a by one of the masters who trained in it, I think in the seventies. His discussion in there is exactly it’s like it wasn’t until about the 1970s that it started actually becoming a bit more open. So probably when you were in Peru, it was still kind of kept quiet.
GW: So you’d have to know someone who knows someone and it’s in somebody’s back garden.
JL: This guy got into it by the master in that area, sending five guys to beat the hell out of him. And then he felt bad about it. He went up to him and said, “Do you want to learn how to fight?” That’s how he knew. That’s how he found it.
GW: Because what has been in Peru since forever is in Semana Santa there is this absolutely crazy period of a few days where literally blood runs in the streets. People just fight in the streets and it’s okay. It is kind of legal. This is a classic I think National Geographic did an article on it a long time, maybe 30 years ago. And I vividly remember this picture of like a nut, like a steel threaded nut with a string through it. Held quite close against somebody’s fist. And it was just dripping blood. And it was like they’re not really trying to kill each other, but they are really going for it. Is that in any way related to really Rumi Maki?
JL: I’m not certain about that particular weapon with the nut, but the fights, those are a part of a tradition that has come down from the early days of Rumi Maki all the way through. Where they have these sort of festivals where they people fight. And some of them are for show, a little more showy, and some of them are flat out solid, real fights. That’s what they’re designed to be.
GW: So what is it like as a martial art?
JL: Well, it’s a five tiered art. The first art is hands. So that’s fists, elbows, clawing and things like that. And that’s a whole lot like bare knuckle boxing, a whole lot like bare knuckle boxing. The second level is kicks and that is kick strikes as well as parrying and blocking kicks with your legs and so on. So, first is upper, second is lower, third is grappling. And grappling is broken up into three different types also, which is of force, with force and without force. So there’s three different types of grappling. And then the fourth tier is doing all of those three types from leaping or falling because of the Andes Mountains, their terrain there was so varied.
GW: Yeah. And Incas basically lived on terraces.
JL: And then the fifth one is sort of the mystical level. It is all of those levels there with weaponry. And that’s when you get your sort of spirit totem animal that you call upon to aid you in the fight.
GW: So tell me about those three types of grappling?
JL: You would find this very interesting with your background in Fiore.
GW: I’m right here. Tell me.
JL: ‘Of force’ is I’m going to use pressure and the force of say my arms, the strength of my arms, to control you. Usually there are binds and there are controls. Grappling ‘with force’ now means I’m going to get my whole body involved in it. So that’s where we start getting our hip relation in there and getting that body weight behind what we’re doing. And then the techniques ‘without force’ are the ones where I use your momentum against you. That’s far more Aikido style, if you will. And so those are the three ways they break down grappling.
GW: All right, now, is it taught in Quechua?
JL: I’m not certain.
GW: Because I imagine you get taught it in English, right?
JL: Yeah. No, I’ve gone through and just studied this book on a on a regular basis. I don’t have a Rumi Maki school here in Michigan.
GW: Okay. What do the words actually mean, Rumi Maki?
JL: Stone fist or stone hand.
GW: Stone fist. Okay.
JL: So that comes from a legend of the sun god’s three sons. And he sent him down to here to learn things. And the youngest one was going to be killed by his brothers. So the sun god turned his hands into stone so he could defend himself and he beat them up.
GW: Okay, do they have any, like, body hardening stuff like you find in Eastern martial arts?
JL: I haven’t come across any of that in there at all. Not really. It’s almost as if you’re reading a Pedder treatise or one of our bareknuckle boxing treatises from the 1900s, you know, late 1800s.
GW: So what is the book?
JL: The book is this, Rumi Maki Fighting Arts. I guessed you might ask about it.
GW: By Juan Ramon Flores and Alex Bushman Vega. Okay.
JL: It’s excellent. It’s a very, very good book on it. And he goes through very meticulously, not only the theory behind it all, but the actual drills and so on and so forth. So it’s really good stuff.
GW: Okay. Now we can cut this out later because I have no intention of producing gotchas. But my question really, and we can cut it out if it goes into an unfortunate area, is how do you know that it is actually Incan and not just made up by these guys?
JL: I am literally having to follow along on what they say, whether it is or not. Now the research that I have done myself, like looking into it and the Internet and whatnot, I feel fairly confident that it is correct. And if these guys did make this up, holy hell, are they brilliant. Because the background he has, the couple of chapters that he has of where this all came from and what’s its history and the philosophy behind it is so detailed. This guy would have to be brilliant to be making that up.
GW: So you’re taking it on faith that these authors are legit?
GW: Okay. And that’s something that we often have to do as historical martial artists. You know, I was greatly relieved when I discovered that Fiore dei Liberi, his hometown named the main street after him. Because it indicates actually he did definitely know his shit because you don’t name the main street of your hometown after some complete loser of a crappy martial arts instructor.
JL: Right. Right. Exactly. Exactly.
GW: Fabris was fencing master to the king of Denmark. The king of Denmark could afford a good fencing master.
JL: Exactly. Exactly. But again, you’re right. This one is one of those sort of ‘this is a secretive art that we have never let out, and now here it is’.
GW: Yeah. I’m always very suspicious of those things because there’s been, I mean, since the eighties, there have been all sorts of supposedly super traditional martial arts coming out of the woodwork, which turned out to be made up by people in the eighties and nineties.
JL: Well, let me let me at least go this far. If by chance they’re making this up, that this is the fighting style of the ancient Incas. OK, it’s still a damn good style. I’ve fought with it. It’s a solid system.
GW: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, there’s lots of different reasons to train a martial arts. One of which is it comes for a particular time and place so you have a kind of historical cultural interest. Another is it actually really works in the context it’s designed for. And those two things, you can have a martial art that isn’t very good, but is historical and culturally documentable. And you can have one that’s really, really good that has actually been made up last week. They’re not totally unrelated. I mean, if something has a solid background, there’s good reason to suppose that it survived for a reason. But, yeah, I’m happy to judge the martial quality of the style by seeing it, but it takes quite a lot of digging for me to be happy with the claimed pedigree for a particular style.
JL: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, absolutely.
GW: I mean, I’ve trained in a Kung Fu style where I was blithely told that this particular thing dated back 3000 years and I’m like, did it? Did it fuck? That is just absolute most apparent horseshit.
JL: There’s and I’ll be honest, I didn’t even go searching for this, but there is a genealogy of it in here. So he’s got names that I could actually go, I haven’t done it yet, but he’s got names that I could actually go through and go, yep. No. Okay, here’s an actual reference to this person, you know.
GW: From a certain perspective, it’s like some hundreds of thousands of years ago, some humanoid person picked up a stick and belted someone on the head with it. And yeah, the idea caught on and we’re all doing descent styles from that original style. You know, to that extent, everything is historical. But it’s tricky to be really confident about what you can say. We have a documented instance of this used in this place at this time. I mean, Fiore is a good example. We can date the manuscripts quite precisely and the claims made in the manuscript about, for example, Galeazzo’s fight with Boucicaut, that is a documented event, it has been documented by other people. And there’s no reason to believe that that didn’t happen. And there’s no reason to suppose that Fiore claimed a student he didn’t have. And so it’s likely that at least Galeazzo when he beat Boucicaut did so using something he learned from Fiore and that kind of thing.
GW: And when you tie that in with streets named after him in Premariacco and in Udine we can suppose actually this is from this period and it was actually practised and it does actually work.
JL: And again, you know, but unfortunately the Mesoamerican area I mean, anything that was written, most of the Spanish priests burned.
GW: But like the Incas didn’t use writing. They used Quipu. Like a bundle of a string with knots tied in it, which was for mostly for like accounting purposes I think.
JL: Exactly. Exactly.
GW: Rather than. I think it’s maybe closer to an abacus than it is to a notepad.
JL: But even the Aztecs and Mayan who had a written language, the fact of the matter is, is that most of their writing was documentational insofar as daily life. I’ve never come across anything that remotely even looks like them saying, well, this is how we used the …
GW: Yeah. And, you know, the same is true with like cuneiform writing. Those, those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of little clay tablets with cuneiform writing on. And some of them are in these like these clay envelopes. And almost all of them are contracts like Jim owes Bob three sheep.
JL: And honestly, it wasn’t until much later, until roughly the Renaissance era, maybe a little bit earlier with manuscripts like 1.33 that it that we had gotten beyond the well, if you’re going to be trained in sword fighting, I’m going to train you. And, you know, we don’t write anything down. It just passed on, you know, like the Egyptians did that with the Greeks. That’s why we don’t have manuscripts on how they did their stuff, because they didn’t write that. They didn’t necessarily have schools, per se. Now, the gladiators were one of the first schools I’m aware of where they actually trained them specifically.
GW: That’s like early stage combat.
JL: And it is. But at the same token, though, I think we’ve got like a cut pattern. I think they found a cut pattern in one of the gladiator schools. That’s the most they found. Why? Because a lot of those guys were slaves and they probably weren’t literate anyway. Why write a book for them? Just get them there every day working their stuff.
GW: And also books back then weren’t books. They were scrolls. Scrolls are much, much more difficult to manipulate. You can throw a book in your back and wander about and pick it out and flick through it or whatever. But taking a scroll out and unscrolling it is much more of an event.
GW: Yeah. So I guess one of the things we can thank for the existence of is historical martial arts is the invention of the codex.
GW: Because it just it just makes it much easier to write a description of things. Okay. All right. So speaking of books, I have heard that it is not impossible that you may or may have not written a book once or twice? Tell me, is this true?
JL: This is true. I did write a book. Well, we were talking a little earlier about the relationship between fencing and stage combat. There is a book on that that should be in the description below, a link to it. That is the Stage Combat Swordplay from Shakespeare to Present. And then my most recent book is Combat Theory.
GW: There will definitely, definitely be links to your books in the show notes so people can go by them. Hint hint.
JL: Thank you. Well, I’m excited about the second one. I mean, the first one is my dissertation retooled into more of an informational book form. But the Combat Theory is like, that’s that stuff I’ve been working on for over ten years.
GW: Okay, so what is it about?
JL: I’m probably going to be the most the worst advertisement for my own book, but Combat Theory is nothing you guys don’t really already know. It’s just a way to present it to you that makes it so much easier and quicker to pick up. We go through years of training, doing drills in classes, and we pick up the concepts of combat theory along the way. But we don’t know we’ve got it, if that makes sense.
GW: I think that that depends how you are taught. I mean, I have a theory of fencing that I teach to my students. It differs from style to style. I even wrote about fencing theory in one of my books, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts.
GW: So what is your book? Okay. Can you give us an example of some concept or bit of the theory?
JL: So the basic concept of this is it’s all the same shit, really, is what we tend to say.
GW: No, no, no. It’s not all the same. It is your unique, special shit that everyone should go and buy. Come on John.
JL: The point being is this is a combat theory that works for absolutely all melee combat, period.
GW: Okay. So it is not for the duel, it is for the melee.
JL: It’s for melee. I mean, any kind of close any kind of close quarters combat with regard to, I mean, I even call I would even consider like pike close quarters. Anything that is not ranged. So bows and guns and things like that. So anything that we have in hand and we’re going at, or unarmed, all this works for this because it breaks down what is involved in an attack. And how do you how do you break that attack down? What’s involved in a defence? And they usually fall into groups of three on a constant basis. In an attack you only have the energy, the direction that energy is going into, and the base it came from, and the technique that’s being used. That’s what comprises an attack. And you’ve got to sort of find a way to disassemble that sort of triangle, as it were. And in the defence, the first thing you need to do is there’s three things you have to do. You’ve got to cover the line of attack, you have to control the weapon and you have to control their time if you want to actively not die.
GW: So let’s just dig into that a bit so everyone can be clear about how you’re using these terms. Okay, so ‘cover the line’. What do you mean by cover the line?
JL: Covering the line of attack, which means I’m closing off that line. Where you’re coming in to attack me, that’s your line. I’m closing off that line so it can’t hit.
GW: So you’re putting something in the way of the attack? Getting out of the way.
JL: This is the second part of the defence is there’s only three ways you can do that. You can either oppose it, redirect it, or range from it.
GW: Yeah. Okay.
JL: Yep. So that’s covering the line. Covering or removing the line. Same kind of concept, right? It’s just not open to them anymore.
JL: I want to control the weapon. Now, that doesn’t mean that I have to grab hold of it with a vice grip. It just means I want to keep either blade contact if we’re doing that, or hand contact on it, so I know where it is.
GW: If you beat it away and it’s moving away from you, it is technically under your control because you put it there.
JL: If it’s so far out that it’s not a danger anymore. Like when I range, I don’t keep try to keep hold of that because I’m out of the way and it’s not a danger to me anymore. So controlling the weapon under your control. And then controlling their time is, if you attack me and I oppose you, well, that was your move. This is my move. Now it’s your move again. Sort of like a chess game. Yeah, I don’t like that.
GW: It’s a terrible way to fight. It’s used on stage a lot.
JL: Because we have to. It’s the safest way to stage, you know. But if you attack me and I cover that line and strike you at the same time, your time now is going to be spent reacting to what I just did to you. And that’s how you control the time of your opponent.
GW: Okay. Many moons ago, I think it’s in my book, Medieval Longsword, I summarised how sword fighting works like this. You tell me what you think of it. Does it fit with your model? Whatever you hit with, let’s call that the sword. Whatever you can defend with could be a shield. Could be the first half of your blade. Let’s call that the shield. So, put your shield in the way of their sword. Hit them with your sword. If their shield is in the way, go around. Do it all in the shortest possible time.
JL: Yeah. Absolutely. Because if their shield is in the way it is in what is called a closed line at that point.
GW: So you have to go around it. And there are there are a million different ways to do all of that. Fundamentally, if you get hit, you failed to put your shield in the way of their sword and if you failed to hit them it’s because their shield is in the way.
JL: And I discuss biomechanics in here. So skeletal alignment. All those important things that we that a lot of people don’t even think about when they when they’re learning to fight. And it’s like, oh, you have no idea.
GW: All of my students know that I am an absolute nut for mechanics. In fact, listeners who may be interested in mechanics should definitely check out the episode with Katy Bowman, who is a biomechanist. That is her actual job.
JL: Oh, nice.
GW: Her actual job. Yeah. She’s fascinating. Put it this way, I had to approach her through her assistant to ask only because you cannot contact Katy directly unless you’re like married to her or one of her children. I think they’re allowed direct contact. She’s sufficiently sort of like high up the ranks that you can’t just like email her or tweet her or something, you have to go through channels. But I invited her on the show because I’m a massive biomechanics fan and her response was absolutely hysterical because I invited her on the show and it’s about swords, because her son is mad about swords so she sent me a picture of her holding a sword and her son wandering down the Hadrian’s Wall path in Scotland with a sword on his back. And it’s just like, OK, we are definitely in the right neck of the woods here. She isn’t thinking about like how to hit people with biomechanics, she’s thinking more about how to stay healthy for a long time. They are fundamentally related things. You have to use your skeleton in the way it’s supposed to be used to get the best out of it.
JL: Yeah, absolutely.
GW: Let the record show that I can just contact you directly because you and I are old friends. But of course, if the listeners want to contact John, they have to go through your agent’s agent’s agent.
JL: They will have to go through somebody. I’ll pick somebody to.
GW: Well, they can just send an email to me and I’ll pass it on to you.
JL: When we were doing that Shenandoah project with Brad Waller and Bob. Why did Bob’s name just escape me?
GW: Which Bob, Bob Charron?
JL: Bob Charron. And the Martinez’s and Jared. When we were doing that project, that’s when I started this sort of concept, working with all of them. And Dwight was there every year as well with us.
GW: Just for the people who don’t know, who is Dwight?
JL: Dwight McLemore. He’s my master. From the School of Two Swords, he passed that on to Steve and myself.
GW: I met him at some of the ISMAC events, I think, and I seem to remember having bowie classes and Tomahawk throwing classes.
JL: Yep. Yeah. And he was a wonderful man. And he was brilliant. So a lot of this stuff that I get out of here really kind of comes from working with all those people and putting it all together and then tying it in. From my perspective, it’s nothing you’re not going to get in a classroom. They might get it quicker.
GW: Oh, yeah. You don’t have to justify putting it in a book to simplify things. I mean, that’s pretty much what I do. You mentioned something called the Shenandoah Project. I’m not familiar with that. What is that?
JL: That was a project that Brad Waller. I don’t know if you remember Brad?
GW: I know Brad, yeah.
JL: Yeah. Brad Waller put together years ago and he brought down a bunch of master instructors and a relegated it to very, very small number of students, high level students. Basically it was a chance for us masters to get together and work with each other, decide what we wanted to teach there, and then we could kind of riff off each other. And sometimes we could even bring things that we were working on. We hadn’t quite yet decided the best way to teach it in the class. And then we could all do it, and we could get notes from each other going, well, I would do this or that or this works this way or something. So it was an was amazing experience. It was supposed to be a ten year process, but I think it lasted about five, maybe. Maybe four.
GW: Interesting. So it’s not it’s not current. Am I right?
JL: No, no, no. That one that’s been over for a number of years.
GW: Okay. All right. Now, there are a couple of questions that I ask most of my guests. The first is, what is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
JL: I have to say, I haven’t acted on it yet.
GW: That’s the best answer. But tell me tell me what it is.
JL: Well, I had started a project where because I’m an EMT as well.
GW: And okay.
JL: I started a project with some local people here who are motion capture specialists and they had their own huge studio.
GW: EMT is like emergency medical technician?
JL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GW: So ambulance driving and CPR and stuff like that.
JL: I don’t work in in that business, but I am certified, so.
GW: I’m just struggling to get a connection between the two things. I’m sure it will come. I should stop interrupting. Carry on.
JL: I went to them and we were going to create virtual reality testing for EMTs. State testing. Especially during COVID, you didn’t have to go to a big room full of people and test. You could do it yourself with the virtual reality thing and it still feels like you’re doing the right stuff. Well, they farted around forever and wasted their time. And we finally reached a point where we were like, it’s too late. That window’s closed now. Gee, sorry. And I went, I wasted three years, two, three years, doing that kind of thing. Well, my girlfriend then said, could your knife training, because I do some knife classes online with some of my higher level students that have moved away, she says, could your training, you and Jared’s training, could you do that in that virtual reality thing? And I went, that’d be cool to try and see if it’s feasible, but that would mean me working with these idiots again that I don’t particularly want to work with. So that’s what I’m saying. I haven’t done it yet because I haven’t found a new batch of motion capture people to work with.
GW: So say you’re thinking of using motion capture to enhance online teaching.
JL: Well, the way that it would be done is they would motion capture me doing the movement, the drills, doing all these movements. You then would put that visor on and you would be in a room which we could create whatever we wanted to look like, you know, like the matrix type thing, right? You’d be in a room with me and I would be there doing that drill with you physically, and you could be doing it as well. And we might even get to the point where we could get to where I would actually physically stop my motion. You meet me and if it touches my area, it turns green. You’re like, oh, you got it, boom. And move on. Not sure, because I’m not that fully immersed yet in that sort of VR world. My son knows more about it than I do. If nothing else, you would have what feels like a more realistic situation where I’m in a room with my instructor going at it.
GW: Yeah, it’s more immersive. Yeah, I remember I worked with the Clang Project many moons ago where Neal Stephenson and friends were trying to put together a computer game that allowed you to basically train swordsmanship. Which is a really cool idea. And the single biggest technical stumbling block was force feedback. So like, if I swing my sword at your head and you put your sword in the way, my sword is stopped against my will. And like for any kind of these physical, tactile things you want the ability to generate that kind of force feedback. Do you see that as a possibility?
JL: I think the best thing you can do at this particular point in time now, in all honesty, is you would feel vibration when that touched, like if my virtual reality opponent swung at my head and I put my sword up and it’s in the right spot, I would feel the vibration as it hit, and vice versa. When I turn around and swing thereafter, if they block me, I’d feel the vibration. But again, no matter what, it won’t give you that feeling of force that stops it. You won’t feel that impact. With EMTs, it was easy. It didn’t matter that I didn’t feel a hand here that I was trying to control the bleeding of, my hands are doing the same motion. When I’m doing compressions, it doesn’t matter that I don’t feel a body underneath it. My hands are doing the proper motions and that’s okay. That’s the muscle memory you’re going to need. Here, I need that impact. I need that feeling of that it’s going to stop. So the best I feel our training can be is effectively doing drills with your instructor in the room and you’re kind of going at it. We might get to the point where, you know, because they’ve got gloves now, which are very tactile. You don’t need the little controllers anymore, things like that. You’ve got gloves now that you can do this kind of stuff with. So I might be able to put my hand up to stop something like that and feel the glove vibrate because I caught it in time, you know?
GW: Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, it’s always going to be easy just to do it in person. But, yeah, I suppose not always an option. And finding ways of teaching over the Internet has been one of the struggles of the last couple of years.
JL: Yes, it has. Absolutely. But that’s the thing. I would like to make it more possible. But until we get some kind of almost like a holodeck from Star Trek or something where they are physically able to make them real, we can’t possibly do it because we just don’t get that impact. We don’t get that tactile response.
GW: Yeah. Super hard. Okay. I’m just curious. So why didn’t you do all the training to be an EMT without working as one?
JL: Because I used to do workshops all over the world so much. It just made sense to me.
GW: What? So that if somebody had an event in your workshop, you could deal with it?
GW: Okay. I have a first aid qualification, but it’s not quite the same the same sort of level as the EMT.
JL: I was working at a college where I could get it for free.
JL: So I took all the classes and everything and got the licence. I think I only had to pay for the actual testing. That’s it.
GW: That’s super cool.
JL: Yeah. So every couple of years, it’s like 300 bucks to get recertified, and that’s all.
GW: Wow. Handy. And so if something does happen in a seminar or if you are just walking down the street.
JL: Yeah, I’ve dealt with a lot of accidents on the highway. I’ve dealt with people tripping in front of a grocery store. By the same token, though, I’ve dealt with split heads from a pommel bash in a workshop. Yeah, I’ve dealt with all sorts of stuff in a workshop, you know.
GW: A friend of mine was playing sort of county level rugby in Ireland. He’s Scottish. His team went over to Ireland for this event and he got his head split open on the field. And as he’s coming off the field with blood pouring out of his head, he obviously needs stitches. This guy says, oh, I can fix that for you. And so he says, okay. And he goes over and he sits on I guess you call them a station wagon over there. And he sits on the back of it and this chap does a very neat job of stitching up his head. Okay, great. Very handy to have someone with that kind of skills right next to a rugby match. My friend found out afterwards that he wasn’t a doctor or an EMT. He wasn’t even a veterinary surgeon. He was a saddler. But honestly, he did a really good job. Now, my last question. Somebody gives you $1,000,000, pounds, whatever, it is imaginary money, have as much as you want, to spend improving historical martial arts or related fields worldwide. How would you spend the money?
JL: From my perspective, what we really desperately need is, is accessibility. We need more workshops that are funded that can afford the space, the event, the venue, the instructors, and pay these instructors what they’re worth to come in to. You know, it gets old when, when we get asked to come in on our own dime and, and not be paid and, but do it for the fun or the love.
GW: Who asks you to do that?
JL: There are some. There’s one out there that I do because it’s a fundraiser for children.
GW: Oh fine, that’s different.
JL: Yeah, I’m fine with that. But there’s still some in the States that do that kind of stuff. I think it’s important that the students themselves see the worth of the people they’re coming for. I know that whole concept of well, if it’s free, nobody feels it’s worth anything. Yeah, but I’d like to try to break that concept and at least keep it very low cost for the students. Very low.
GW: But also it can be dependent on circumstance. So, you know, if I was invited to go and teach a seminar for a bunch of London City financiers, then I would charge accordingly. And if I’m going to teach a bunch of students in pick a country with a low cost of living and low income then a sufficiently significant fee for one group so that they’ll actually understand that they’re investing something in this and so that they’re invested in it is totally different. I’ve taught seminars where the amount of money that was going to be raised was so ridiculously low because of these various factors that my view is I either get paid properly or I teach for free. And I don’t like to do stuff particularly in the middle. So it was like, well, okay. Make a significant-to-you contribution to this particular charity and I’ll teach for free. And that’s fair, the fact that they’re paying something, but what they’re paying is like proportional to their current financial status. And like the equivalent of, I don’t know, maybe taking their girlfriend out to dinner or their boyfriend out to dinner or all of their girlfriends out to dinner. No, not all of their girlfriends, that would get really expensive. The sort of expense that comes out of the fun budget, not out of the feeding the children budget.
JL: Right, right, right, right, right.
GW: And that kind of it cuts through the thing that I have had some people don’t understand that this is my actual job. And many moons ago, I was invited to teach at a multi instructor event and I was like, yeah, I’d be delighted to. And my usual thing for that situation is you need to pay my expenses, which is at that point is flights from where I was to where I needed to go, which was going to be about $350. By modern standards, maybe $400, something like that. And I got this, like, outraged email back. Who the hell do you think you are that we would screw our budget for this event just to have you over? Seriously. Some people are weird about money. Obviously I’m not going because I don’t see any particular reason why I should pay to go to an event to teach. That doesn’t make sense to me.
JL: And to be honest, even if things changed, your initial attitude is enough for me to not want to be there anyway now.
GW: Well, then compare that to the guys in New Zealand, who knowing full well that flights to New Zealand are very expensive and it takes a very, very long time to get there, they asked what would it take for you to come and teach at our event? So I said, well, at this sort of event you need to cover my expenses and my time is free. Cover the expenses. They’re like oh, okay, we can do that. And then they help organise like paid seminars either side of the event so that I can actually get some money for the time that I was spending away from home and whatnot. But yeah, there’s a strange sense of entitlement that some groups seem to have.
JL: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s something I’d like to I’d like to break. I’d like people to understand what it took to get where we are and that it’s worth some money. But at the same token, I want these events that I would fund with this to be readily accessible to so many more people. So again, that concept of, well, if you say it’s free, then no one’s going to come because they’re going to think it’s shite.
GW: But that’s that that’s where that charitable donation thing comes in.
JL: Right. So I would I’d say probably what I would do is I’d be like, okay, it’s like $75 to get into the event and be a participant for the weekend. But your room and meals here are covered.
GW: Wow. Yeah.
JL: That would do it because then it then it’s still a cost to them. It’s still a cost. It means something to them. But it’s now affordable. All they’ve got to do is get their butt there and then they’re set. And I think that would that probably be probably one of the best ways to do it. It doesn’t demean the instructors by saying it’s a free event.
GW: Yeah, but you can also have it as sort of like scholarships, like, okay, we’re having this event and for most people it’s $250 for the weekend, plus whatever it costs them to stay there, which I know this is kind of standard, I think, for most of us these days. But we have, like 20 funded places which can be applied for. Which could also include travel costs because some people the cost of getting from.
JL: Just a flight alone is too much. Right?
GW: Yeah. To get from, like, Nevada to Detroit, that’s a long way.
JL: Yeah, I think that’d be a good add on as well.
GW: I forget which of my guests suggested this. Oh, I think it maybe it was Dori Coblentz, I can look it up and put it in the show notes, who suggested having creches at events, childcare. So parents of young children can go to the event with their children, park their children somewhere safe and happy, go have a good time doing grown up sword stuff with their friends and their children are there in good form at the end of the day. That would be a nice combination of the things and maybe some of the money to go into, like, creches, like subsidised travel for less well-off students.
JL: Right now, it’s all about accessibility. Who can get to these events, you know? And these events only thrive when they have students at it.
GW: Yeah. And you don’t want it to be always the students who happen to be well-off.
GW: It’s just not fair. Well, if I had the money, I definitely consider giving it to you.
JL: Excellent. When you get it, give me a call.
GW: Excellent. Well, I think that’s a wrap. Thank you very much for joining me today, John, it’s been great to see you again.
JL: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.